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Contenders – Sound Designers Chuck Michael and John Larsen, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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John Larsen

Getting real chimp vocalizations was quite a task according to 12-time Golden Reel Nominee Chuck Michael and eight-time Golden Reel nominee John Larsen, supervising sound editors on director Rupert Wyatt‘s Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. “Right away, places like zoos removed themselves from the equation because you can’t get separation from other animal sounds,” Michael explained. “But we found this place in Keithville, Louisiana called Chimp Haven that is basically a retirement home for biomedical research chimps.” The handlers knew all the chimps by name, and whatever treat or coaxing was required to get the chimps to make any sound the crew needed.

The biggest challenge was using the vocalizations made by the performance capture actors playing the primates in the movie, such as Andy Serkis, who played the lead role of Caesar. Because the chest of a chimp is much thicker and more resonant than that of a human, the sound editors had to process the recordings for use in the movie. They recorded the actors to picture at a high sample rate (192K), and then processed those recordings using plug-ins, including the just released,  “Nectar” from iZotope.  Michael loved the software not just for the sound, but because it had so many things in one box. Another useful program in the processing chain was a modeling module called “Throat” from the AVOX Vocal Toolkit by Antares. Michael also used some sound tools that he already had from Waves.

Chuck Michael

In addition, the chimp sounds had to be processed to sound more human, while matching all of them to achieve a consistent sound.  “Plus, we had to make the whole transition throughout the film from infant, to adolescent, to adult chimp, then smarter and more human adult chimp, and finally, to leader,” said Larsen. “That was something that Rupert was extremely concerned about. He wanted their intelligence to evolve.” This evolution was necessary to the story because the film is a prequel. In all of the other Planet of the Apes movies, the apes speak fluent English.

Another major challenge was that to be in character, the animal actors, especially Serkis, were constantly vocalizing over the human actors’ dialog on set. This made it extremely difficult to separate the human voices from the “chimp” sounds for processing – something Robert Altman, the master of overlapping dialog, never had to deal with.

Michael summed it up, “The challenge was really about getting the emotion from all of the apes, because here are the main characters of your movie, and they can’t communicate in words.”

Larsen continued, “It became even more complicated because Chuck would find the right element from the real chimp recordings we made that had the right emotion and they wouldn’t fit the dialog Andy had originally done in production. We had to match his lips.”

Visual effects became yet another hurdle to proper lipsync, due to the fact that they started syncing chimp vocalizations to the shots of the actors in the VFX suits, but as the final VFX shots came in, often times the sync would no longer work, or simply didn’t look realistic.

In their favor however, was re-recording mixer Doug Hemphill. Michael explained “He did a fantastic job of placing everything in a real environment and blending it in with the production dialog and ADR. But everybody worked really hard, and we had a great team.”

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Rise of the Planet of the Apes from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

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